After a prolonged and much publicized search, technology behemoth Microsoft selected Indian American, and longtime Microsoft veteran, Satya Nadella, as its next CEO. Nadella follows the hallowed footsteps of Steve Ballmer and founder Bill Gates as only the third CEO of one of the largest companies of the world. Microsoft is one of the largest players in the software sector, but the tide is slowly shifting in the consumer space from PCs to tablets and mobile computing. The post-PC era is starting to affect Microsoft and it needs a leader who understands the coming challenge and is willing to redefine Microsoft for the next few decades. So who really is Satya Nadella, the CEO of the 132,000 strong Microsoft?50

The Microsoftie

Over the years, Nadella has worked in many areas of Microsoft. Until his recent roles in the more prominent and public facing Server and Tools and Cloud divisions, he spent much of his time in a myriad set of important but not prominent roles within Microsoft.

His work has included stints in the Online Services (Search, Portal and Advertising), Microsoft Business Solutions, and innovation efforts in Interactive Television (ITV) and Digital Rights Management.In the past year, he has prominently championed Microsoft’s growing Azure cloud business where it is competing against the likes of Google and Amazon.

Previously, under his stewardship, the Server and Tools business at Microsoft had grown to be a $20 billion business with $8.2 billion in operating income.As evidenced by his educational credentials, Nadella prides himself in being a lifelong learner and a seeker of all things new. Within Microsoft, he has spent time across multiple business units where he has had the opportunity to learn about the entire business. This makes him uniquely suited for the CEO role.

Roots and Rhyme

Nadella’s father, B.N. Yugandhar, was a special secretary to late Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao and subsequently a member of the Planning Commission. Upon his son’s prestigious promotion, he is quoted in the DNA in India as saying “He is a very studious and hardworking boy, and has achieved his goal.”

Nadella grew up in Hyderabad and got his Bachelors in Engineering from Manipal Institute of Technology.Then, like hundreds of thousands of wide-eyed engineers from India, made his trek to the United States for his Masters.Nadella earned a Masters in Computer Science from the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He briefly worked at Sun Microsystems before joining Microsoft in 1992.

He was in the middle of an MBA program at the University of Chicago when he took up the Microsoft offer in Seattle. Instead of giving up on his program, he chose to commute to Illinois every weekend from Redmond to finish his program.Nadella is an avid cricket enthusiast and has referred to his liking for the game at many a press conference. “I think playing cricket taught me more about working in teams and leadership that has stayed with me throughout my career,” Nadella said after he was appointed CEO according to a Firstpost article.

He is married to Anupama and the couple are the proud parents of three kids—a son and two daughters. Satya has referred to the time he spends with his family as special and they continue to visit India every year.He has fondly talked about his passion for American and Indian poetry which he likens to software code, abstracting complexities elegantly within few lines.

On the Meet the CEO section of the Microsoft website Nadella is quoted as saying that there is a definite correlation between poetry and software. “It’s like code.”  “You’re trying to take something that can be described in many, many sentences and pages of prose, but you can convert it into a couple lines of poetry and you still get the essence, so it’s that compression.” He goes on to add that the “best code is poetry.”Nadella is well remunerated for his contributions. According to Politico, Nadella made $7.6 million in 2013.

What They Say

In speaking to ex-colleagues, friends and current employees of Microsoft, it is easy to see why Steve Ballmer, Bill Gates and the rest of the Microsoft board zeroed in on Satya Nadella.

Sam Jadallah, Founder/CEO of TyTo Life, worked with Nadella when he was a VP at Microsoft.

He says, “Satya and I worked closely together several times during the 1990s, in particular, we both had a strong interest in small business market and how to offer the right products and services. Satya brought a poise, confidence and style that was very unique within Microsoft culture. He had a way of adapting to a very driven Microsoft environment but doing so with his own style and sense of purpose.  It was very refreshing. I believe the appointment of Satya as CEO is very meaningful to Microsoft as it recognizes Satya’s leadership and product skills and validates the internal support and reputation that he has built during his long tenure. Microsoft was always a very strong meritocracy and Satya’s appointments shows that Microsoft valued those who provided enduring contributions to the company and one’s background, ethnicity or religion was relatively unimportant. It’s one of the things that I’ve always loved about Microsoft and, more generally, the technology industry overall.”

Talking to a few Microsoft employees, I got the sense that there seems to be a strong sense of optimism in what Nadella brings to the table and can do for Microsoft. There is confidence in his ability to deliver and usher Microsoft into the next generation of technology.

One long time Microsoft employee Greg  Baskins (name changed upon request) has worked closely with Nadella and had the following to say about him. “I have had the chance to present to Satya and be a demo guy for his talks on a couple of occasions. One thing I have always felt is that after every conversation/meeting/engagement with him we all come out energized and positive. As EVP of Cloud and Enterprise (C+E), he set the right big picture context, rinsing and repeating the mission to all levels of the org, and gave the organization a clear long term direction. In presentations to him, he always seemed to have done his homework, was very respectful and generally let us go through all the material and gave pointed feedback—mostly cross-company integration type, as he is always thinking about the big picture and One Microsoft customer viewpoint. In his presentation prep he is very detail oriented and particular about every aspect—slides, talking points, flow, ordering of demos, etc. Overall I am a big fan and have a lot of respect for Satya and am excited for what lies ahead.”

South Asians and Leadership

“Increasingly, Indian Americans are occupying leadership positions in leading United States companies. Why?” asks Venktesh Shukla, President of The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE). “Most credit familiarity with the English language as the main reason. While that is certainly an enabler, it is not a complete explanation. The secret to the success of Indian Americans in leadership positions lies in two other reasons. First, Indians instinctively know how to deal with diversity. Chances are that they have grown up with people who look different, dress and eat differently, follow different religions and speak different languages at home. Indians know that just because someone else is different does not mean that he or she is inferior or superior to them—just different.

The only other country in the world which deals with so much diversity in its people is the United States. In every other country, people grow up in situations where every single person around them speaks the same language, has similar food and dress and goes to the same place of worship and looks the same. Indians in the United States instinctively do better than immigrants from any other country because they are better at handling diversity in the work place.The second reason Indian Americans do better is the culture of competition back home. Nothing comes easy in India—from getting admission to a good school or college to getting a seat on the bus, every aspect of life is fiercely competitive.

People who are successful in India are successful because they have mastered what it takes to be marginally better than the next person. It is this familiarity with fierce competition and the skills of doing better than the next person that enable a person to climb the corporate hierarchy here.None of these reasons are well understood here but are critical ingredients behind the success of Indian Americans.”

Up for the Challenge

At Microsoft, Nadella has a unique challenge ahead. Technology is slowly but steadily shifting from a desktop centric environment to a post-PC era of tablets and mobile devices. Data is no longer stored in large hard drives in the computer. Instead much of computing and storage is powered by the exploding cloud business. Nadella has talked much about a future driven by mobile and the cloud and his recent experience in one of them positions him well for this coming challenge.

He also is a believer in motivating his team to innovate and excel. In his first letter to Microsoft employees, Nadella’s message is uplifting: “I am here for the same reason I think most people join Microsoft—to change the world through technology that empowers people to do amazing things. I know it can sound hyperbolic—and yet it’s true. We have done it, we’re doing it today, and we are the team that will do it again.”

Nadella extends his message by  quoting Irish poet Oscar Wilde: “We need to believe in the impossible and remove the improbable.”Overall, Nadella seems to be a solid bet for Microsoft to continue to be the technology leader in the face of immense competition, unlike anything it has seen in its lifetime. He is also grounded in his belief systems and his sense of family and work life balance. Time will tell if he will take Microsoft to new and greater heights but for now, he seems to be the right person for the road ahead. For the Indian community in America, this is a big achievement and a reason to be proud.

Nadella’s life in both inspirational and motivational in all that he has accomplished from his humble roots and the possibilities that lie ahead. He shows the Indian American community that all it takes is hard work and a single minded focus.As Sam Jadallah aptly put, “Great people rise to the top and there is no one image of what a great leader looks like. Satya has the skill set, talent and leadership to drive change at Microsoft and every bit of his talent and skill will be tested.”

Rangaprabhu Parthasarathy is a tech enthusiast and blogs on various topics from parenting to shopping: rangaprabhu.com.

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